Book Review: Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

graceling by kristin cashoreKristin Cashore‘s Young Adult debut novel, Graceling, is a robust, wonderfully-written fantasy novel that despite certain fanciful elements, turns out to be truly heartfelt and human.

A synopsis of Graceling from the author’s website:

Graceling is the story of Katsa, who has been able to kill people with her bare hands since she was eight. Katsa lives in the seven kingdoms, where very occasionally, a person is born with an extreme skill called a Grace. Gracelings are feared and exploited in the seven kingdoms, and none moreso than Katsa, who’s expected to do the dirty work of torture and punishment for her uncle, King Randa. But then she meets a mysterious stranger named Po, who is also a Graced fighter and the first person ever to challenge her in a fight. The two form a bond, and each discovers truths they never imagined about themselves, each other, and a terrible danger that is spreading slowly through the seven kingdoms. 

The first time I tried reading Graceling, I didn’t get farther than the first chapter. It’s a complicated world Cashore has created, and for me, I had to be in the right mindset to get through the intricate details of the kingdoms and powers and the idea of a teenage royal female assassin.

I was ready the second time, though, and I’m glad I was.

Graceling meticulously unfolds across 480 pages, pacing itself to reveal what I thought were fascinating layers of the characters – primarily Katsa and Po – and their particular “Graces.” And for the most part, this is a character-driven story, so that pace felt right. Katsa, Po, and even Princess Butterblue, who is introduced in the second half of the book, evolve naturally in relation to the situations around them, which felt honest and relatable. And the love story in Graceling is sincere and rewarding, though not totally to formula (which I liked).

There is plenty of adventure and intrigue in Graceling, though I admit that certain plot points felt forced. There were a few times when I had to remind myself “Wait, why is this important again?” or reason out “How is this even connected?” The thread between the first and second halves of the book felt strained, and although it was all explained in the end, it wasn’t entirely to my satisfaction. Cashore has since written two “companion” books to GracelingFire and Bitterblue – which apparently explore these “loose ends.”

But for me this book was more about Katsa and Po, their personal conflicts and growth, and their relationship together. Cashore spared nothing in giving readers plenty to digest between them, and I found myself totally engaged in following these gracelings through every page.

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